By Omar SAMAD -
When Presidents Barack Obama and Hamid Karzai meet in Washington this week, they will have yet another opportunity to deliberate on an intense bilateral agenda, including the transition process, prospects for reconciliation, the nagging insurgency, a bilateral security agreement, and the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan’s future beyond 2014.
However, this encounter will not only be a unique occasion for both men to take stock of the post 9-11 mission and concentrate on the period leading to the 2014 end-game, but more importantly, on how Afghanistan’s fate might mold their respective legacies, and how history might judge their key decisions concerning America’s longest war by the time both leaders are out of office.
There has been much talk about Karzai’s legacy when his second and last term ends in 2014 after 13 years in office, but little attention has been paid to the impact of the war on Obama’s legacy when he leaves office in 2016.
Much will depend on stability in South and Central Asia, on global security realities, on internal Afghan dynamics, and how much leverage and goodwill the U.S. will possess in a fast-evolving geo-strategic setting on the Asian continent.
Karzai, once toasted as a modern and savvy leader, has less than two years to prove that perceptions shaped at home and abroad – since his 2001 rise as interim leader – will test his strategic foresight, leadership and management styles, and accountability matrix.
He already faces an uphill battle trying to redress the top positions held by Afghanistan as the main producer of opium and most corrupt nation.
Corruption may be viewed by some observers as his Achilles heel, but it is more difficult to overcome when weaved into the complex web of nepotism, patronage and a weak judiciary.
On the other hand, compared to many past leaders, history might give him favorable ratings for his survival skills, penchant toward non-violence, public humility and political astuteness that has, in some cases, cost him political capital.
Two questions might best help analysts decipher Karzai’s legacy dilemma:
1. What mega event might shape his end-of-term standing?
2. How would he want history to remember him?
In the first instance, war and peace will play a determinant role. If a political settlement, involving his side and seen as fair and popular, is reached by the end of his term, then it may trump all other considerations and he may be remembered as a peacemaker.
The reverse could be less appealing if he leaves an unstable country on the verge of renewed civil strife, or reverting to status-quo and a stalemate with growing uncertainty.
Secondly, if the political transition results in fair and legitimate elections, and a new leader (or coalition), Karzai is bound to be remembered as the leader who oversaw a credible process and a peaceful transfer of power, regardless of whether a peace deal has been worked out or not.
However, if he is remembered as overseeing fraudulent elections or engineering the process in favor of a hand-picked successor in 2014, then not only will he jeopardize the transition process, but will, in all probability, not be viewed kindly by history.
Personally, he has yet to offer glimpses into his own desires, but there are indications that he may be drifting between three contradictory labels: “peacemaker”, “modernizer-democrat” and “nationalist”.
His inner circle has bearing on his thinking. Some with a specific agenda encourage him to make peace almost at any cost, while others want his term to be remembered as the democracy-building period. The third group, made up of ultra-nationalists, is eager to label him as the leader who restored sovereignty and pushed back to accelerate the withdrawal of foreign forces from the country.
Karzai himself may like to aim for all three, but it is unlikely that they could be attainable given the timelines before him and the perceptions that exist on all three fronts.
Obama, on the other hand, signed on to the Afghan mission as Iraq wound down and called it the “good war” and the “war of necessity”. A surge was soon followed by a withdrawal timetable as US elections approached and public opinion soured.
Since Osama Bin Laden’s spectacular killing, all attempts have shifted toward political attempts at seeking a timely formula to bring the war to an end. But serious threats within and beyond Afghan borders still persist.
Furthermore, given the American political calendar, Obama will face the first hurdle in 2014 when mid-term congressional elections take place. Then it will be 2016 as he leaves office. In both instances, Afghanistan may emerge as a foreign policy headache if the transition is problematic or perceived as a failure for the US and NATO.
However, if the transition and withdrawal programs move according to plan, then Afghanistan will emerge as a success story and help the President’s foreign and security policy record. And, if conditions allow for reconciliation to take place simultaneously, then history will be even kinder about the Afghan war record.
But what if the situation deteriorates between 2014 and 2016 and turns once more into a global security menace (as demonstrated during Talban/Al Qaida rule 1996-2001) or results into a failed state verging on civil strife?
Either way, Obama’s legacy will be tarnished.
But neither Obama nor Karzai can claim exclusive blame if Afghanistan faces a debacle of sorts. The blame for losing Afghanistan would have to be shared by many in positions of responsibility since 2001 – primarily Afghan leaders, regional spoilers and the Western alliance.
This week’s meetings in Washington offer an occasion for both sides to think beyond their time in office, and with level-headedness weigh all options when deliberating on decisions that will prove fateful.
The two leaders need to be mindful of not just immediate and intermediate tactical considerations, but also of longer-term implications and consequences affecting the future of a nation, a difficult region and two legacies.
Omar Samad is a Senior Afghan Expert at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). He was former Afghan Ambassador to France and Canada, and Spokesperson for the Afghan Foreign Ministry. Views expressed here are his own.